Helen Birchall spent 20 years as an Officer in the Royal Signals. Her main reason for leaving was that she felt she had achieved everything she wanted to do in the military – having completed operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Northern Ireland, amongst others, she was after some stability in her life and a level of continuity in what she was doing career-wise.
Helen spent her last four years in the army working in procurement, a move she made deliberately in order to help her engage with the industry and start making contacts that could aid her in her future job search.
“The procurement experience I gained towards the end of my military career provided me with legitimate reasons to start engaging with technology companies and build a relevant network of contacts within that industry. I also undertook a master’s degree in Defence Acquisition Management too, which enabled me to work with lots of civil servants and military personnel who weren’t necessarily in the field of work that I was in and this helped to broaden my experience and contact database.
“During my last four years working in defence procurement I saw many opportunities, for example, if there was a particular company that I was interested in, I always made a conscious effort to get in touch and go and see them. It gave me a chance to experience their working environment and enabled me to meet people that I wouldn’t otherwise have come into contact with.”
You will quite often see someone else in the room looking as awkward as you feel but if you approach them and start a conversation they are generally really grateful that you’ve come over.
We asked Helen what she thought the biggest barriers to networking were and how she overcame them...
“Although I was an army officer, and you have this ability to put on a brave face and get on with things in life, that’s not necessarily a true reflection of who you are. Whilst I found it easy to stand up in front of a hundred soldiers and give a presentation, when the uniform comes off, you can lose the confidence and personality that goes with it. I think people always felt that I came across very confident but actually, underneath, I had these fears that people wouldn’t like me, wouldn’t want to talk to me or like the things I said. Over time I realised that a lot of it is actually about finding common ground and that didn’t necessarily mean talking about work-related issues. It can be as simple as asking somebody what they did at the weekend and their answer provides the catalyst you need to carry on the conversation. It also makes it a bit more relaxed. My biggest hurdle was having the nerves to go and start a conversation rather than waiting for people to come to me.
“When you attend an Officer’s Mess, for example, there is always somebody you know there, so you’re not going into a cold environment. When you go into a networking event you can literally know nobody and that can be quite scary. You can feel insignificant in a roomful of people, especially when it seems like they are all talking to somebody and you’re not.
“I think the turning point for me was an Officers’ Association networking course that I went to in London run by Judith Perle. Although I thought I had overcome my confidence issues, I decided to go anyway as you can never stop learning. It really opened my eyes to the fact that nobody likes walking into a room and feeling uncomfortable. You will quite often see someone else in the room looking as awkward as you feel but if you approach them and start a conversation they are generally really grateful that you’ve come over. I’ve done this on many occasions and, although they may not be relevant to my area of business, we’ve always had a good conversation. The key is to overcome that fear of nobody wanting to talk to you and, looking back, I don’t know why I ever had that concern.”
“In terms of my own networking success, I was very lucky in that my boss in the military left about 6 months before I did. He had already been for several interviews and one that he was successful at he actually had to turn down for personal reasons. The company asked if he knew anyone else suitable for the role and he thought of me. Although I was very interested, the timing wasn’t quite right as I wasn’t planning on leaving the military for another few months and was also weighing up the option of starting my own business. However, I decided to go as felt I had nothing to lose and it would be good preparation for when I eventually did leave the army. I approached the situation as more of a discussion rather than a formal interview, as I wasn’t under any pressure to get the job at that time. I think that relaxed approach really helped me and the interview went well. I now work for that company.
“I would also say that when you talk to people and you’re interested in taking that conversation further, don’t give them your details, take theirs. If you give people your details, it might be important to you but it’s not always the same to them. If you take their details, you are in control and the responsibility is on you to engage and take things further.
“Even though I have a new career and a good job that I am enjoying, I still make the effort to attend events and engage with people wherever I can. Also if I’m in the locality of my contacts, I regularly suggest meeting up for a coffee or a drink after work. People really appreciate you making the effort and it also keeps you current in their mind.”
A final quote from Helen that she took away from the OA’s event: “Don’t start building your network when you prepare to leave the army; in the same way you don’t start digging a well when you need a glass of water.”